Common Read/Common World Book Chosen

Posted on April 10, 2019
Bob Lowry

“When the Emperor was Divine,” which tells of the experiences of Japanese Americans in a World War II internment camp in the Utah desert, is the University of South Alabama’s Common Read/Common World book selection for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Written by Julie Otsuka, the book is based on her own family history. Otsuka’s grandfather was arrested by the FBI the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor as a suspected spy for Japan, and her mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years in a prison camp in Topaz, Utah.

“This selection was made after much deliberation by a committee made up of USA faculty, students and staff,” said Dr. Lars Tatom, committee co-chair, associate professor of theatre and chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. “It is a work of enormous power.”

Dr. Krista Harrell, associate dean of students and Title IX coordinator, also serves as committee co-chair.

The book begins on a sunny day in 1942 in Berkeley, Calif., as a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family's possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans, they have been reclassified as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their home and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert.

Otsuka, born and raised in California, pursued a career as a painter before turning to fiction writing at the age of 30. Her first novel, “When the Emperor Was Divine” has been translated into 11 languages and was a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist, and was recently added to the National Endowment for the Arts’ ‘The Big Read’ Library.

The voluntary Common Read program for all University of South Alabama students, especially freshmen, aims to improve understanding of differences and commonalities across the world while engaging in academic discourse and critical thinking. Throughout the year, students and faculty will interact with the book in a variety of academic settings.

USA faculty planning on utilizing this work in any fall classes or interested in partnering on programs related to this selection should email

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